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Posts Tagged ‘Stevie Smith’

A Chain on the Great Feelings

February 11, 2014 | by

The deceptively breezy poems of Stevie Smith.

NPG x133107; Florence Margaret ('Stevie') Smith by Jane Bown

Photo: Jane Bown

Stevie Smith’s playful, carnivalesque poems, tiny on the page but emotionally trenchant, are getting a new life—her Best Poems were reissued in December. 

It’s high time. Smith’s work has been nearly forgotten, her books having fallen out of print. She is not, on the surface, tenderly lyrical or feminist enough to court contemporary readers. Born in England in 1902, she enjoyed some popularity in the sixties for oddball performances of her poems, which she often sang, or read with spooky dramatic flair, but she might just have been too original, or too variegated, for any one school of poetry to champion her work. Perhaps she has also been dismissed because she comes off as cold and hard, a person of uncertain likeability: her so-called comic verse roils with death wishes and sneering attacks on other poets. (“Let all the little poets be gathered together in classes / And let prizes be given to them by the Prize Asses,” she says in “To School!”) She has been put in with Blake, Coleridge, and Emily Dickinson. Fine company, but Smith is far more varied, unfettered, and disenchanted than all that. Her lines have scope. They contain a high-low mix of childlike diction, plain speech, formal rhymes, and heroic couplets, with a register that ricochets between folk tunes, hymnals, liturgy, nursery rhymes, and lyrical verse. She deliberately set many poems to the tunes of hymns, and sang them as such. Given all the wit and intellect that animate her poetry, why has she been forgotten? 

A profoundly independent and, by all accounts, slightly peculiar woman, Smith—born Florence Margaret, and only later Stevie—lived in the same house in North London from the time she was three until her death, taking care of an aunt she treasured, without the need to insert a proper man or children into her life. She worked as a secretary in the women’s magazine business for her entire career, which perhaps is why, in her poems and in her letters, she tilts to seeing women as acutely silly. She avoided serious relationships, settling instead into easily reciprocated, caring friendships and a familial bond with her aunt. Read More »

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Literary Paint Chips: Gallery 3

May 14, 2012 | by

Paint Samples, suitable for the home, sourced from colors in literature. As seen in our two-hundredth issue.

Fox Stain1 Graham Greene2 Iteration Pudding3 Hood4
Fence5 Skipper’s Whiff6 Pizza7 Noise White8
Martyr’s Tongue9 League10 Funeral Suit11 Dead Sea12
Doze13 Dishwater Blonde14 Stupid Blue15 Dorsal16
Bible Black17 Lo’s Socks18 Poop Poop19 American Autumn20
Damned Spot21 Spit Black22 Georgie’s Pins23 Oatmeal Tweed24
Treasure Blue25 Nimbus Card26 Felon Yellow27 Wine-dark28

Annotations

  1. “The season’s ill— / we’ve lost our summer millionaire, / who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean / catalogue. His nine-knot yawl / was auctioned off to lobstermen. / A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.” “Skunk Hour,” Robert Lowell.
  2. Graham Greene
  3. “But if you stir backward, the jam will not come together again. Indeed, the pudding does not notice and continues to turn pink just as before. Do you think this is odd?” ‘Arcadia,’ Tom Stoppard.
  4. “Her mother was excessively fond of her; and her grandmother doted on her still more. This good woman got made for her a little red riding hood.” “Little Red Riding Hood,” Charles Perrault.
  5. “Sighing, he dipped his brush and passed it along the topmost plank; repeated the operation; did it again; compared the insignificant whitewashed streak with the far-reaching continent of unwhitewashed fence, and sat down on a tree-box discouraged.” ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,’ Mark Twain.
  6. “Wendell takes a whiff of Skipper, who is wearing what used to be a pair of pink flowered pajamas. A small bit of satin ribbon is still visible around her neck, but the rest, including her smiling face, is wet brown mud and something else. ‘Part of this is poop,’ Wendell hollers.” “Cousins,” Jo Ann Beard.
  7. “She noticed a piece of bright orange pizza stuck between his teeth, and it endeared him to her.” “A Romantic Weekend,” Mary Gaitskill.
  8. “I heard a noise, faint, monotonous, white.” ‘White Noise,’ Don DeLillo.
  9. “St. John Nepomucene was martyred in Prague in 1393 for refusing to reveal a secret of the confessional. His tongue has been entirely preserved. Experts examined it 332 years later in 1725, and testified that it was the shape, color, and length of the tongue of a living person, and that it was also soft and flexible.” ‘Beautiful Losers,’ Leonard Cohen.
  10. “Then, again, I have heard it is no use your applying if your hair is light red, or dark red, or anything but real bright, blazing, fiery red.” “The Red-Headed League,” Arthur Conan Doyle.
  11. “In the meantime I unpacked my bag, opened the wardrobe and hung up the dark gray suit I had taken along to Chur as my funeral suit, so to speak.” ‘The Loser,’ Thomas Bernhard.
  12. “I remember the maps of the Holy Land. Colored they were. Very pretty. The Dead Sea was pale blue. The very look of it made me thirsty. That’s where we’ll go, I used to say, that’s where we’ll go for our honeymoon. We’ll swim. We’ll be happy.” ‘Waiting for Godot,’ Samuel Beckett.
  13. “And then I went off into a blue doze, sitting there in the car next to William. I was thinking about Josephine who is also this very dear friend of mine.” ‘Novel on Yellow Paper,’ Stevie Smith.
  14. “... a jewelry box in which a strand of Mary’s dishwater-blonde hair lay bedded on cotton.” ‘The Virgin Suicides,’ Jeffrey Eugenides.
  15. “I had forgotten about his eyes. They were as blue as the sides of a certain type of box of matches. When you looked at them carefully you saw that they were perfectly honest, perfectly straightforward, perfectly, perfectly stupid.” ‘The Good Soldier,’ Ford Madox Ford.
  16. “It took Brody’s eyes a moment to adjust, but then he saw the fin—a ragged brownish-gray triangle that sliced through the water, followed by the scythed tail sweeping left and right with short, spasmodic thrusts.” ‘Jaws,’ Peter Benchley.
  17. “It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crow-black, fishingboat-bobbing sea.” ‘Under Milk Wood,’ Dylan Thomas.
  18. “Officer, officer there they go— / In the rain, where that lighted store is! / And her socks are white, and I love her so, / And her name is Haze, Dolores.” ‘Lolita,’ Vladimir Nabokov.
  19. “They reached the carriage-drive of Toad Hall to find, as the Badger had anticipated, a shiny new motor-car, of great size, painted a bright red (Toad’s favorite color), standing in front of the house.” ‘The Wind in the Willows,’ Kenneth Grahame.
  20. “The afternoon was perfect. A deeper stillness possessed the air, and the glitter of the American autumn was tempered by a haze which diffused the brightness without dulling it.” ‘The House of Mirth,’ Edith Wharton.
  21. “Out, damned spot! out, I say!” ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth,’ William Shakespeare.
  22. “The restaurant to which he took us was a theater people’s one, not very far away, and filled with gentlemen in fancy waistcoats just like himself, and with girls and boys like Kitty, with streaks of greasepaint on their cuffs and crumbs of spit-black in the corners of their eyes.” ‘Tipping the Velvet,’ Sarah Waters.
  23. “Then she hitched up her skirt and some layers of stiff white petticoat and began to draw on a pair of peacock-blue stockings which I had given her.” ‘A Severed Head,’ Iris Murdoch.
  24. “You wouldn’t be able to decorate out a table in afromosia teak veneer, an armchair in oatmeal tweed and a beech frame settee with a woven sea-grass seat? ” ‘The Caretaker,’ Harold Pinter.
  25. “He then explained to me that it was commonly believed that on a certain night of the year—last night, in fact, when all evil spirits are supposed to have unchecked sway—a blue flame is seen over any place where treasure has been concealed.” ‘Dracula,’ Bram Stoker.
  26. “Suddenly the restaurant seems far away, hushed, the noise distant, a meaningless hum, compared to this card, and we all hear Price’s words: ‘Raised lettering, pale nimbus white...’” ‘American Psycho,’ Bret Easton Ellis.
  27. “Conrad now surveyed the pod room with a horrible clarity. It was a foul gray chamber inhabited by grim organisms in yellow felony pajamas who arranged themselves in primitive territorial packs.” ‘A Man in Full,’ Tom Wolfe.
  28. “As far as a man seeth with his eyes into the haze of distance as he sitteth on a place of outlook and gazeth over the wine-dark sea, so far leap the loudly neighing horses of the gods.” ‘The Iliad,’ Homer.

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LOL Cats

April 5, 2012 | by

Out of Print is a new series in which we feature our favorite library discards, used-bookstore finds, and family hand-me-downs.

Circa 2002, I forced my eighteen-year-old brother to drive me to a church basement in the outer suburbs of Chicago to watch a community-theater production of a play about the life of poet Stevie Smith. As I recall, we got into a screaming fight on the way there, and he further enraged me by falling asleep during both acts and leaving the theater several times for cigarette breaks. In truth, the show was abysmal, and in retrospect–given the number of soliloquies by a lead with a highly unconvincing British accent and very distracting Dutch-boy wig–his behavior was downright saintly.

All of which is to say, I was obsessed with Stevie Smith. I liked her idiosyncratic verse and her strange novels; I was interested in her latter-day career as a beatnik cult figure; I loved the book of her collected sketches, Some Are More Human than Others. But the root of my obsession was a little-known text I’d picked up in a London charity shop, 1959’s Cats in Colour.

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